Sunday, June 28, 2009

Apollocon 2009: "Does Fantasy Have to be Epic?"

I was interested in this sessions mainly because I'm interested in where the short SF/F books went. The panelists included Martha Wells (moderator), Lillian Stewart Carl, Dee Beetem, Gail Dayton, and A. Lee Martinez.

Lillian, who is up for a Hugo later this summer, started the process with the obvious: epics and multi-book stories are publisher driven. Back in the day, Robert E. Howard wrote many stories about Conan but they were all stand-alones. All fantasy lives in the shadow of J. R. R. Tolkien. He wrote a multi-book epic with grand sweep (forget that the book is really one large book) and he set the bar and the mold. However, Tolkien was an exception. He wrote The Lord of the Rings without the market in mind. Indeed, there was not a market at all.

Dee brought up a good point: writers spend a lot of time building a world. Once built, it better pay off dividends. Lee stated that series is what people want. While he didn't come out and say it, I think series characters, like our TV series and late-night talk show hosts, are essentially comfort food. We want to return to that galaxy far, far away or read the latest Harry Bosch novel time and again.

The talk progressed to writing style. Lillian said that readers will be tolerant of bad writing if the story is good. (Kind of like Nora Roberts' first rule of writing I mentioned in the "Raiders of the Lost Maguffin" write-up)

Lee finds himself bored with the same old worlds. That's why he writes stand-alones and builds the world up every time. At this, Martha brought up another obvious point: readers nowadays are so sophisticated and they have so many genre tropes ingrained in our Reader DNA that a writer doesn't necessarily have to world-build the way they used to (like Edgar Rice Burroughs, for example). Again, Robert E. Howard was mentioned. He wrote what he knew. Sure, he used a different name for a four-legged animal you ride but its really a horse. All the panelists said they disliked wacky names for the sense of being wacky. I agree with them. Some of the names Alan Dean Foster used in his early books were a bunch of consonants. Lee said it best: we writers put too much pressure on ourselves to world build. It's not all that necessary to have the entire global structure in place before you write a story. You can world build with what's around the character and, as Martha said, you can fill in some gaps in the next book. Gail concluded about world building that you can explain as you go.

A funny aside: all the panelists, when they discussed Epic Fantasy, would take their hands and make an arc with one hand, almost like a rainbow. That morphed into visual code for "epic fantasy." It became the funny joke of the hour and Lee ran with it, visually describing other books with shorter arcs, choppy arcs, or none at all.

In summary, I think the panelists came to the same conclusion: sure, there is a market for massive, epic fantasy stories with tons of world building. But that's not the end-all, be-all in fantasy literature. There's more out there that's good.


  1. Myself, I'm not a big high(epic) fantasy fan. I quickly grew bored with the Wheel of Time, the Sword of Truth, Shannara,etc.
    The type I like is that Conan sort of story. Few novels, shorter stories that can showcase different areas of a character.
    The last multi-book fantasy I really enjoyed was Lord of The Rings( and as mentioned, it was really one book).

  2. Randy - I NEED to read me some Conan. Tobias Buckell seems to be doing something similar with his novels. It's the same universe but different sets of characters. I like that as you can world-build in smaller increments.

  3. If you read Conan, search for the titles that are strictly Howard, in which none of his stories have been rewritten, or added to, to fit into the framework by de Camp and others, not to mention some of the later pastiches that were rather bad.

  4. That sounded an interesting discussion. My main problem with epic fantasy world building is when authors feel obliged to data dump all their notes on the printed page and call it fiction to get the book up to the required length. Authors should now ten times more about their world than appears on the page, except in epic fantasy when you're allowed to know less.

    I much prefer books like Cook's Black Company saga where clearly thought has gone into the world-building and yet none of it appears on the page and what you do get is utterly hard-boiled.

  5. Randy (2) - I've noticed the non-Howard books in used book stores and kept my distance until I learned the truth. Thanks for filling in the gap. In the days since, I've found an ebook version of Conan's first story and aim to read it this summer.

    I.J. - I completely agree with you regarding all the notes in a manuscript. Even in grad school, my history professor told us that we'd take scads more notes that we'd ever need in our thesis. This is the second time you've mentioned the Black Company (at least). I'm going to have to find these books. Wonder if they're in audio...?

  6. I don't think fantasy has to be epic, but it's nice if there are series out there to become reacquainted with favourite characters.

    My mistake with reading the Wheel of Time series was to read the first six volumes back-to-back until I was tired of it. Now I'm ready to complete the series before the final book comes out.

    A fantasy trilogy about fairies, magic and dragons done by Michele Hauf were stand alones: each had an element or two from the first book that carried through to the end.

    I have one of Lillian Stewart Carl's earlier books: Lucifer's Crown, that I reread at least once per year for the imagery in her writing style.